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Sometimes you have to stop and research the flowers.

When most people picture the fastest growing segment of agriculture, what comes to mind might be herds of cattle, fields of soybeans, or acres of corn. Rarely would the picture include lilies or roses, or trees and shrubs.

But flowers, potted plants, and landscape trees and shrubs are some of the today's hottest agricultural products.

Not only do potted and landscape plants add beauty and color to our homes and gardens, they also help purify the air.

A conservative estimate puts the worth of the floral and landscape industries in this country at about $8 billion at the grower level, according to USDA's Economic Research Service.

During the 1980's, floral crops and nursery agriculture grew about 10 percent a year. In 1991, during the recession, it still grew about 2-3 percent, and more vigorous expansion has been projected for 1992 and 1993.

This year, flowers and house, and nursery plants became the sixth largest commodity group in the United States, moving ahead of the broiler industry. In 21 states, it placed among the top five agricultural commodities.

In Dade County, Florida, alone, before Hurricane Andrew, 23,000 people were employed in the floral and nursery crops industry.

When you consider the multibillion-dollar size of the industry, ARS' 1992 budget of $5.5 million for research on floral and nursery crops is fairly small. Even so, there has been a major payback to the U.S. economy.

But people tend to take many of our decorative and landscape plants for granted. They aren't aware that years of painstaking scientific research are needed to produce a new shrub or flower dependable enough to be a major floral or landscape crop--research that is often beyond industry's ability to carry out, either because of the risk, the resources, or the time required for such work.

Take for example, poinsettias. ARS' genetic improvements and research in growing methods contributed greatly to this plant's phenomenal increase in commercial value during the 1970's and 1980's. The industry grew from a wholesale value of about $38 million in 1976 to $170 million last year. Poinsettias are now the number-one potted plant sold in the United States, even though the marketing season is only about 6 weeks.

Today, ARS collects plants from a11 over the world, evaluates their potential to fill niches in the U.S. market, and then develops growing techniques for the best of them.

Most of the work in this area is centered at the ARS-directed U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., and in the ARS Florist and Nursery Crops Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland.

The arboretum specializes in improving landscape trees and shrubs.

In 1984, the Florist and Nursery Crops Laboratory and the Society of American Florists--with support from the American Floral Endowment and many private companies---launched a cooperative program to increase the number of species of flowers and plants available for commercial production in the United States.

Among the releases to come from this program are Kangaroo Paws and the Little Blue Bell, a pretty dwarf lisianthus.

This program holds great promise for establishing additional new floral crops.

But new varieties are far from the only floral and nursery crops research carried out by ARS scientists.

ARS scientists are working on a range of projects from the control of diseases to genetically engineering new forms of nursery plants. A special focus is on finding biological pesticides that gardeners and growers can use in place of chemical pesticides.

For example, new products made from extracts of the neem tree have already been approved for commercial sale by the Environmental Protection Agency based, in part, on ARS research. They work against several insects and mites, and ARS scientists are investigating using neem-based products against fungal diseases of leaves.

ARS scientists are also conducting fundamental research on floral and nursery plants. An ongoing project investigates the biochemical and physical bases for color in plants and our perception of it. Such information may help make development of new kinds of flowers easier and may provide a scientific basis for variety identification.

The benefits of ARS floral and nursery crop research are both short and long term. Applied research answers immediate needs of growers--solving pressing problems. For example, ARS undertook leafminer research at the request of the nursery industry because of the great losses inflicted by this insect.

On a long-term basis, there are the new crops and improvements in growing techniques that mean new and expanded specialty markets for growers. Introductions--such as impatiens improved in the 1970's with novel germplasm and by crossbreeding by ARS scientists---have opened exciting and profitable avenues for the U.S. horticultural industry.

Research is a crucial link in the chain that provides floral and nursery crops for the enjoyment of everyone in the country.

Howard J. Brooks Associate Deputy Administrator Plant Sciences
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Title Annotation:nursery plant research by the Agricultural Research Service
Author:Brooks, Howard J.
Publication:Agricultural Research
Article Type:Column
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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